Monday, January 7, 2013


I have been swimming at the YMCA twice a week for over two years, and I actually dread January because the pool gets crowded with people acting on their New Year’s resolutions. Usually by mid-February, though, the crowd has thinned out and the pool’s back to normal.
Why are resolutions so notoriously difficult to keep?
When we make a resolution we say that at some future point we are going to break out of the rut of our ordinary behavior and act in a different way.
Recent neurological research shows that much of our mental processing consists of deeply burned-in neural circuits—ruts—that make it easy to keep acting the same way over and over again.
For example, I may resolve to avoid fighting with my brother-in-law this Thanksgiving. I drive to the dinner full of determination, developing plans to avoid conflict. Then in the middle of dinner I notice I’m yelling at him. What happened to my resolution? The answer: I’ve been hijacked by subconscious programs running in my brain. Maybe I’m insecure because he is successful at business and I’m not, and this insecurity drives me to take a confrontational attitude towards him. I’m not consciously aware of this attitude, but it means that once I start interacting with him my resolution to act differently is forgotten; it’s so much easier to follow the old patterns of behavior.

Charles Duhigg investigates why it’s so hard to change in his 2012 bestseller Power of Habit: Why we Do What We Do in Life and Business. A habit is a behavior that is driven by subconscious mental processing. Our brains like habits because they save on brainpower. Mr. Duhigg writes, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”
He describes what researchers call the “habit loop”: cue - routine - reward.
Imagine a researcher puts an animal into a cage. A light goes on—the cue, the animal pushes a button—the routine, food is dispensed—the reward. Repeat enough times and a habit loop is created. The animal has electrodes attached to its brain, and at first the researcher sees a spike of brain activity at the time of reward: reward = pleasure. Once the habit is established the spike comes just after the cue; the animal learns that when the light comes on food is coming: cue = pleasure.
Mr. Duhigg concludes, “This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.”
There is currently a lot of research into willpower and how to strengthen it; the preliminary findings are that it is like a muscle that can be trained.
One researcher said, “When you learn to force yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a hamburger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think. People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.”
In other words, we can burn new neural pathways and change our subconscious programs.
Researchers studying weight loss in humans found that many successful dieters envisioned a new reward—how they’d look in a bathing suit or the good feeling when they stepped on the scale—and this new reward was enough to help them change their routines.
But, Mr. Duhigg says, the best way for most people is to change the routine aspect of the habit loop. “To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”
In an appendix Mr. Duhigg gives some practical advice on how to identify the cues and rewards that underlie a habit. He tells us that experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, or an immediately preceding action.
He gives an example of a habit he wanted to break: eating a cookie every afternoon, which was causing him to gain weight.
First he identified the routine: every afternoon he would go to the cafeteria and eat a cookie while talking to colleagues. Then he experimented with various rewards to find out what he was really looking for—was it the sugar jolt, the distraction from work, or the social interaction?
So for a few days when the urge came, he took a different action (note that he didn’t fight the urge). He bought coffee instead of a cookie—caffeine instead of sugar. He went for a walk—a different type of distraction. He went over to a co-worker’s desk and had social interaction there instead of in the cafeteria. After he came back to his desk, he jotted down how he felt, just random thoughts expressing that moment’s feelings. Then he set his watch’s alarm for 15 minutes and at that time asked: do I still want a cookie? In this way he identified the real reward. For him it was the social interaction.
The next question was: What was the cue? Hunger? Boredom? Need for a mental break? 
He kept a record every day for a week of what he was doing and feeling the moment the urge to leave his desk hit: where am I, what time is it, what’s my emotional state, who else is around, and what action preceded the urge. Then he looked for the common element—for him the cue was time of day; he narrowed it down to between 3:00 and 4:00.
He had his cue and his reward. Now he just needed to develop a plan to make it easy to replace the old routine with a new one. As Mr. Duhigg informed us, the brain gets lazy once a habit has developed, so a plan helps to keep us from forgetting to act on our new routine. What Duhigg did was set his watch alarm to 3:30 every afternoon, when he would get up, find someone to talk with for 10 minutes, then go back to work.

If you really want to keep your resolutions this year, I suggest you read this book; it can help you retrain your mind.

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